Gazidis' move a sign of MLS success

Martin Rogers
Yahoo! Sports

For Ivan Gazidis, it all started with a banner, a desk in a corridor and a vague blueprint of a noble idea.

Fourteen years later, one of the founding fathers of Major League Soccer is getting ready to head back to his British homeland with a mission accomplished and a reputation as one of world soccer's leading executives.

Amid all the criticisms MLS receives on a regular basis, especially in the United States, it is easy to forget that not so long ago a sustainable pro soccer league in North America was little more than a figment of the imagination of some wide-eyed visionaries. So, however you look at it, the swift pursuit of MLS deputy commissioner Gazidis by one of the biggest and most financially astute clubs on the planet – Arsenal of the English Premier League – is a ringing endorsement of the league's principles and values.

"For a club like Arsenal to believe enough in Major League Soccer to hire one of our key executives speaks volumes," MLS commissioner Don Garber said. "We have an American soccer guy who has been tagged by some very smart people to run one of the most influential clubs in the world."

In January, Gazidis will take over as chief executive at Arsenal, where it is hoped, among other matters, he can work productively with manager Arsene Wenger in much the same way former vice chairman David Dein did.

Arsenal has not won a trophy since the 2005 FA Cup and craves silverware, but the infrastructure that makes it a European giant is firmly in place – with a gleaming new stadium and a worldwide fan base.

Gazidis' new situation will be completely different from how things were the last time he started with a new employer in 1994, when he agreed to come to the States for an initial six-month stint to assist with the creation of MLS.

"It all started in a corridor of the 1994 World Cup offices in Los Angeles," said Gazidis in a telephone interview with Yahoo! Sports. "Mark Abbott (now MLS president) was working from a fire closet and we thought he was lucky.

"We had nothing. No one wanted us there [because] they had a World Cup to run. We had a banner that read 'Major League Soccer,' but no one knew what Major League Soccer was.

"Of course back then, we believed we could create something. But to go from those humble beginnings to a league which will soon have 18 teams and 10 of its own stadiums, we couldn't have imagined."

Gazidis believed in American soccer enough to stay. Six months became nearly a decade and a half of vast change and growth.

He remembers the tense early days when the battle for investment dollars and prospective owners was a thankless and unceasing struggle. When put into context against the recent wave of expansion bids, where a series of high-quality proposals are there for MLS to choose, it is easy to see why Gazidis thinks the tipping point has been reached.

Many of Gazidis' biggest achievements involve players, having been a key figure in bringing Landon Donovan back from Germany and acquiring David Beckham from Real Madrid. He is especially proud of the collective bargaining agreement, which helped to salvage a rapidly deteriorating relationship between the league and its players in the early years.

The impact of Gazidis' departure would have been felt more sharply had it taken place a few years back, but current MLS executive vice president Todd Durbin and senior vice president Nelson Rodriguez have worked closely alongside Gazidis, who plans to spend the final month of his tenure preparing them for life without him.

In the end, the Arsenal position – and the chance to return to London – was too good for the 44-year-old to refuse. Yet the long-standing vision he holds for the success of MLS remains strong, even if he will no longer be directly involved after the end of the year.

"I firmly believe this will be one of leading leagues in the world in 10 years," said Gazidis, who is confident that MLS's business model will continue to flourish and allow for greater investment in world-class players. "I don't think it can overtake the NFL domestically. I don't think it can overtake the English Premier League or La Liga in terms of player quality. But I do think it will move faster than any other soccer league in the world."

"When you look at the recent strides that have been made, combined with a commitment to improve the strength of the on-field product," he added, "real progress in inevitable."

There's still work to be done. Issues remain with television ratings (the MLS Cup final's ratings were poor despite a high-quality game between the Columbus Crew and big-market New York Red Bulls) and a striking disparity in player salaries. Many still earn paltry sums of less than $20,000 per year, and that does nothing for the credibility of MLS, which could lose talent to Europe or even the second-tier United Soccer Leagues if the situation isn't resolved.

Still, Gazidis' move to Arsenal is the best indicator that MLS is on the right track.

"I will miss MLS far more than MLS will miss me," Gazidis said. "I feel like the luckiest man alive. I get to go from one dream job to another."

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